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Would You Risk Your Life to Save Elephants?

October 19, 2017

Most of us have never faced that question. As covered in an obituary in the September 2, 2017 issue of The Economist, Wayne Lotter, at age 51, was murdered by a gunman who forced his taxi door open on the edge of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Most of Wayne's life was devoted to conservation. However, he recognized that no measure of protection and surveillance was sufficient enough to eliminate the massive financial incentives of poaching to the poor villagers. When he arrived in Tanzania in 2009 after some 25 years in the Kruger National Park in South Africa and Kwa-Zulu Natal, he concluded he was at ground zero for elephant conservation. Accordingly, he and two colleagues, Krissie Clark and Ally Namangaya, founded the Protected Area Management Solutions Foundation in an attempt to lessen the level of slaughter.

Despite their efforts, in the next five years, Tanzania lost 60% of its elephants. The smell of rotting elephants could travel up to 100 meters away from the partially butchered carcass and cause Wayne's stomach to knot. At times, he would encounter up to 14 carcasses a day. The financial incentive of five euros per kilo of ivory to the villagers was too strong for something that would ultimately sell for 2,000 euros in Beijing.

In the image below taken by Lindy Taverner, Wayne is shown on one of his scouting missions.

In order to counteract the rampant slaughter, he created a network of informants. His program led to the arrest of 2,000 poachers which he believed reduced the rate of poaching by 50%. Apart from the success with poaching, he was able to persuade many farmers not to attack the elephants who ruined their crops by planting barriers of chili peppers -
the author's first line of defense in the Texas Hill Country - and maintaining beehives. As killer bees are also common in the Hill Country as well, perhaps we should bring some elephants in as the surroundings do not look much different from that pictured above. Moreover, Wayne had active educational programs to teach school children the value of nature.

He was a very self-deprecating individual who gave all the credit to his village rangers. He also maintained that his NGO had to be nimble and unpredictable. Moreover, he felt that the more ponderous a conservation organization became, the more easily poachers could corrupt it. One could make the same observation about the corruption that overcomes more widely known, supposedly non-profit, organizations with a disproportionate share of their contributions going to office buildings and lifestyle.

Notwithstanding Wayne's modesty, he personally initiated a multi-faceted program to impact the rate of poaching in Tanzania. He believed he was fighting a war. He fortified Tanzania's serious-crime investigation forces with sniffer dogs and pushed weak criminal prosecutors which enabled the prosecution and trial of several ivory war lords. In the end, he paid for his success with his life while ignoring repeated death threats and any attempt to provide for his own security. However, as he maintained, the key is to eliminate ivory demand. The Chinese seem to have taken some positive steps in that regard by officially banning imports. However, old habits coupled with prevalent corruption are hard to break.

Sadly, as the National Geographic estimates below indicate, more Wayne Lotter's are desperately needed in this effort. As demand is still the price driver for poached ivory, strict controls on imports into China and Vietnam are critical, particularly if coupled with efforts to make carved ivory pieces the objects of disdain and taboo rather than prized possessions.

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